What’s an ‘Occupation’ anyway?

It’s election year. It’s true. It can’t be avoided. The evidence is popping up everywhere with smarmy smiling faces beaming back at us at nearly every intersection and corner property. I’ve never cared for talking about politics and I promise I’m not going to start now, but it reminds me of my occupation issues.

At this time I ask myself when can I officially call myself an ‘Author’ and feel legitimate about it?

Is it an occupation you need to prove with book publication, or can the individual designate it for his or herself? Do you need to earn the majority of your income from that official occupation to prove its legitimacy? If so I think they’d be a lot of authors in New Zealand listed as ‘Librarians’, ‘Retail Assistants’, ‘Cleaners’, etc because it doesn’t pay well for the majority.

I ponder this question because I’ve officially been an ‘Author’ on the electoral role for a couple of elections now. I am an Author, but as yet I don’t make any money from it. Is it my occupation? Well yes it is, filling every waking moment when I’m not working at selling books to survive in the rat race. Even then I’m still thinking of how a particular character would react to this or that. I’m still thinking about a fictional world I may be creating outside the workplace. An Author is who I am, no matter what other job I’m doing.

Ten or so years ago a local Hawke’s Bay DJ admitted that he got a kick out of seeing his occupation listed as ‘Belly Dancer’ on the electoral role. As a joke he’d written it down and every pre-election he got to see it printed on the official electoral forms once again. He obviously enjoyed the fact that no-one had ever disputed it or wanted some form of proof, because he was clearly not a belly dancer at all. I liked that, and the knowledge of this has always been there as my backstop defence regarding my declaration. He could of course be a belly dancer, but maybe he doesn’t earn any money from it, just like me.

The Electoral Roll issue aside, in recent years I’ve found myself with the same dilemma when first meeting people at parties and gatherings. What do you tell them when they ask the inevitable:

‘What do you do?’
‘I’m an Author,’ you might say.
‘What sort of books have you written?’
‘I haven’t had anything published just yet.’
‘Oh.’

Watch how quickly your interrogator makes their exit.

Working in a book store doesn’t have any better results – it’s a conversation stopper in my experience. These occupation lines of questioning are embarrassing. Why should I need publishable proof to prove I’m worth talking to? Why should I have to become my money-earning job in conversations instead of just being myself?

In the last couple of years I’ve had respite from this – I’ve started calling myself a ‘Writer’ instead, and when questioned I’ve been able to say that I’m a student of the Whitireia Creative Writing programme. ‘Writer’ however, doesn’t seem as concrete an occupation on the Electoral Roll as ‘Author’ does it? So ‘Author’ it will remain this year. And if a DJ can say he’s a Belly Dancer without wiggling his be-spangled hips provocatively in proof, then this unpublished Author can say she’s an Author without whipping out her latest published novel.

by Penny M Geddis, Otatara Bookshop

1 thought on “What’s an ‘Occupation’ anyway?

  1. A subject dear to those of us not having managed the immortal status of having words formed into a novel – as opposed to words in novel form.

    So “When can I call myself an author and feel legitimate about it?” Maybe never. I know many authors who use the word “writer” – because author is so conversation unfriendly. Even so, I agree, it is nice to see “author” sitting there in black and white on the electoral roll.

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